After a repressed childhood, dominated by his rancorous father and brutal schooling, William a’Beckett wished to become a poet. While he made some money from literary endeavours, it was not enough to support a wife and family.
Recommended to apply his qualifications as a barrister in the rising colony of NSW, he took his family to Sydney in 1837. His attainments at the Sydney Bar were immediate and spectacular. He advanced to the Solicitor-Generalship and then became an acting judge after a fierce contest with rivals. Appointed Resident Judge at Port Phillip (Melbourne) in 1846 he progressed to be the first Chief Justice of Victoria in 1852. Afflicted by paralysis of the legs, attributable to youthful cricketing injuries, a’Beckett was sometimes an irritable judge.
He has been much criticised for his outspoken support of the temperance movement, for his attacks upon the excesses (as he saw them) of the gold rush, and for alleged bias in the Eureka Trials.
This study portrays him in a kindlier and more objective light, suggesting that some earlier assessments have been exaggerated in their criticisms and superficial in their conclusions.
Foreword by The Honourable Michael Kirby, A.C, C.M.G.
Running Away from Home
Acknowledgements/ List of Illustrations/ “Dramatis Personae”
Moving to Melbourne
New Colony: New Chief Justice
Eureka and Beyond
“A Sort of Literary Mania”
Abbreviations / Notes / Index
Modest performance notwithstanding, [a’Beckett’s] story as told by Bennett provides several fascinating glimpses into the lives of Australian colonial judges, their sometimes rocky relations with each other, the criticism to which they were subject by politicians and the press, and the general stresses of administering justice in fragile, fractious societies. …
John McLaren, Australian Historical Studies, Vol 34 (122), October 2003
As a lawyer writing lives of judges, Dr Bennett is well suited to telling the story of their work – the cases that took up their professional time and made or broke their reputations. He records their personal lives carefully and judiciously. …Dr Bennett has created a worthy portrait of the striving, ailing and stubbornly conservative Chief Justice [A’Beckett]. He and his publishers deserve warm praise for this ambitious series.
Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 74(1), April 2003
History has not been kind to Sir William a’Beckett. JM Bennett has attempted in this book to give a more honest and sympathetic description of Melbourne’s first Chief Justice. It gives a valuable insight into Melbourne society at that time.
History News, Issue 229, July 2002
Bennett notes … the historical criticism of a’Beckett’s handling of the criminal trials which followed the rebellion at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in 1854. [He] proposes a revised assessment of a’Beckett’s role in one of the most highly charged political events in Australian history. He also presided over the trial of alleged offenders at the Bakery Hill riots at Ballarat [which] occurred on 29 November 1854, the day before the Eureka Rebellion. …
It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for a’Beckett. His father was a dour London solicitor said to be the model for the cold-hearted Ralph Nickleby in the Charles Dickens novel, Nicholas Nickleby. … The Melbourne he presided over was convulsing with one of the greatest economic booms in Australian history due to the rivers of gold running through it from the north-west. The resulting social dislocation and excess appears to have distressed a’Beckett, not to mention the spirit of republicanism which aggressively rang around his courtroom every time another alleged Eureka rebel was acquitted. …
Bennett reassesses a’Beckett as a misunderstood figure, whose foundational role in establishing the rule of law has been drowned out by the intense politics of a young nation inventing itself.
NSW Bar News, Winter 2002
This interesting and absorbing book does an excellent job, in summary form, of dealing with Sir William’s life and especially, his career as a barrister and judge…
Dr Bennett’s up tempo narrative traces the story of an ambitious young barrister…
The bulk of the work of Dr Bennett’s study, understandably, is taken up with a discussion of the major cases Sir William decided, such as the trials of those involved with Eureka; mention is made, as well, of the very strained relationship the judge enjoyed with the local press during almost the whole of his period in office. The author is at pains to correct what he regards as unjustified criticism of Sir William made in the past, and in that regard, Dr Bennett proves an effective and persuasive apologist.
The book does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of the subject’s life, in the law or otherwise. a’Beckett’s considerable literary output was dealt with by Dr Clifford Pannam in his Sir William’s Muse, a short work published in 1992. Dr Bennett’s more general study does an excellent job of stimulating our interest in the life of a devoted servant of the law and is a worthy contribution to our understanding of the workings of the very earliest days of Victoria’s legal history.
The Australian Law Journal, December 2002